Woody Allen’s ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ stops short of spellbinding

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Much has been said about Woody Allen in recent months. In January, Allen received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes. In February, Dylan Farrow, Allen’s estranged daughter, publicly addressed allegations that Allen had sexually assaulted her as a child in an open letter published in the New York Times. Less than a week later, the New York Times also published Allen’s response to Farrow. A barrage of media reactions to the pieces soon followed.

Was it appropriate, wondered critics and columnists, to honor Allen for his outstanding contributions to cinema given Farrow’s allegations? Some argued against it, while others offered ambivalent conclusions. Then there were Allen’s tacit allies, like actress Scarlett Johansson, who called Farrow’s letter “irresponsible” in an interview with the Guardian.

No matter their exact positions, both Allen’s supporters and detractors forced the public to reconcile the same set of questions: Can we separate the artist from the art? More importantly, should we?

This is why it is a relief that “Magic in the Moonlight,” Allen’s latest film and the first to be released since February’s events, is rather lackluster. It is altogether more difficult to dismiss Allen’s greater works, not because they ceased to be meaningful in light of Farrow’s allegations, but precisely because we understand them to have value — whether cultural, commercial, artistic and otherwise — that transcends Allen himself altogether.

In the case of “Magic in the Moonlight,” it becomes apparent quite quickly that when a movie begins with Colin Firth in yellowface, you’re in for a less-than-stellar ride. Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a stage magician making his living as Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese sorcerer who enchants tuxedoed audiences around the world. Firth is the film’s neurotic, Nietzsche-quoting rationalist, a sourpuss at odds with a maudlin world and entirely suspicious of things like religious faith and romance. Crawford is the sort of fellow who has a stick so far up one part of his body you’re surprised it’s not coming out of his mouth. Naturally, it is only a matter of time before some sentimental force comes along to corrode Crawford’s steely exterior.

Sentiment comes in the form of Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), an American psychic living with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and the wealthy Catledge family at their French Riviera villa. Sophie is the Catledge’s live-in psychic, a spiritual medium with a knack for both recounting the past and foretelling the future. Crawford arrives at the Catledge estate at the urging of longtime friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney). Burkan, we learn, is certain that Sophie is a charlatan but has been unable to expose her. Crawford, he hopes, will be able to reveal her pseudo-spiritual abilities for what they are: fraudulent. The movie clips along with this game of cat and mouse pleasantly but blandly, leading us to a tidy but unsurprising conclusion.

“Magic in the Moonlight” lacks the enchanted period charm of “Midnight in Paris,” the biting humor of classics like “Manhattan” or even the heady dysfunction of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Critic David Denby, writing in the New Yorker, describes the film as “formulaic” in its execution of romantic comedy. Indeed, the plot twists are self-evident nearly from the start.

The entire film seems somewhat muted — not careless or hurried but stifled, like a weary retelling of a once-vivid story. Cinematographer Darius Khondji has framed each shot crisply, bathed in natural light, but this lovely mise-en-scene fails to revive Allen’s freeze-dried dialogue, which too often begs for a laugh instead of delivering one. Even the usually effusive Stone, doe-eyed and decked out in stunning costumes original to the era, seems constrained, though whether it’s because of the script or the apparent lack of chemistry with Firth remains unclear.

For a film so concerned with teaching its characters to embrace the magic of life’s little illusions, “Magic in the Moonlight” is less than spellbinding.

“Magic in the Moonlight” opens Friday at select San Francisco theaters.

Contact Sarah Adler at [email protected].